Abu Musab al Zarqawi’s killing is not surprising, less significant strategically than it will inevitably be presented to be, and the man will in all likelihood be replaced sooner or later.
For the past three years, al Zarqawi had been battling the world’s most powerful armies in the middle of a population whose majority (the Iraqi Shia) he had declared war on. He was on the run, and a $25 million bounty had been put on him in a place where such irresistible incentives had allowed for Saddam Hussayn to be captured and his sons killed. What is indeed surprising is that it took so long to get to a man who had alienated a number of his potential ‘comrades’ and had taken tactical chances by recently sending a half-hour video to the media showing him roaming around the desert with his men and discussing plans over maps. More generally, this is the gamble of frontliners (who usually embrace such fate) and, for instance, Al Qaeda in the Gulf had similarly lost two of its leaders since 2005 (Abdelaziz al Moqrin and Salah al Oofi) without much disruption to its attacks on the Saud monarchy.
Al Zarqawi was not a member of Al Qaeda until late December 2004 when his request to join the organization was accepted by Ben Laden. An acceptance that appears to have been given rather reluctantly. Zarqawi was a late-comer to Afghanistan where he had set up his own training camps, a disposition for independence that Ben Laden did not much care for. For his part, Ayman al Dhawahiri had recently disapproved of the extreme violence resorted to by al Zarqawi and invited him to put a stop to that and fold his actions into the larger umbrella of Iraqi resistance. He abided by both requests, an indication of the ‘Mother Qaeda’ leaders sway. Arguably, both men had only accepted him because of his early “successes” in terrorizing foreigners and Iraqis alike.
Finally, it is essentially the overstreched symbol of a key figure of Al Qaeda that has vanished. On the ground, the complex and fast-changing Iraqi insurgency will continue as it had after the May 2003 “end of hostilities, the December 2003 arrest of Saddam Hussayn, the January 2005 legislative elections and other “turning points”.
Mohammad-Mahmoud Ould Mohamedou is Associate Director of the Program on Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research at Harvard University.